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Rolison trading Poughkeepsie corner office for New York state Senate

 Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison
Facebook: City of Poughkeepsie
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Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison

Longtime Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison is wrapping up his tenure in that role, but he's staying in public office in the new year. After two terms as mayor, the Republican won November's election to represent the new 39th district in the New York State Senate. Public Safety was a key campaign issue for the veteran of the Poughkeepsie police. He spoke with WAMC's Ian Pickus.

So, how does it work transitioning from the role as an executive to a state Senator?

Well, it's interesting and that's a really great way to start the conversation. I had to transition from the legislative branch of the county legislature for 12 ½ years to the executive branch of the city of Poughkeepsie and I've had these conversations with both sides saying, “I know what it's like to have to take a vote.” Now I know what it's like to be what you would call the chief executive, and not having to vote. Now going to Albany, and being back in the legislative branch and I think what is good for me, is that I have experienced both. I have obviously a healthy respect and admiration for both sides of government and been very, very lucky and blessed to have been able to participated in both.

OK, well, tell us the truth. Which is harder?

That’s a great question. I think depending on the topic, right? But I would say for me, and being, you know, just the experience of being mayor, and having the responsibility to 30,000 plus people, people look to their mayors and their chief executives for guidance, for action, to do something, and most importantly, to be present within that community. And that's something that has always been one of my top priorities, you know, that I don't sometimes like to use that word priority is to be present. So, people know who and I think people knew and do know who their mayor is here in Poughkeepsie.

Your father was a New York State Senator. Was it a dream of yours to follow in his footsteps? How did you get to this point in your public career?

Well, thank you for that, because my dad was a wonderful father. I had a great mom and dad, and a great sister. I still have a great sister. My dad started as an elected official in 1967. I think he was 37 years old when he was elected to the State Senate. That was his first position as an elected official. He was active in the Republican Party, both in the town of Poughkeepsie and then he was the County Chairman, and then the position became available and said, “Jay, you got to run.” At first, he didn't want to, and he did and he held that position in the state legislature for 24 years. As a kid, he was in Albany and going to Albany with my mom and sis, quite often to see him at the legislature and then we would go up every year at the end of the session and come back with him and it was really a great experience. But never, I always wanted to be a cop and a fireman and I did both. It wasn't until probably, you know, the first, say, seven or eight years of my career as a police officer. I became involved with the police union. I was PBA President for two, five years stints dealing with elected officials on the town board and their levels of government. I really enjoyed it, but never really thinking that far ahead that I would become a state senator, or even, back up, that I would ever be mayor of the city of Poughkeepsie, right? I mean, those were not things that I was necessarily aspiring to, but I got involved with the county legislature in 2003. I had the opportunity which was a gift to get appointed to the legislature in the District 8, where I lived and which represented a part of the city of Poughkeepsie and eventually the town of Poughkeepsie because there was a vacancy and I held that position for the last six months of 2003 and then that November, I ran for a two-year term. I don't think that that probably would have happened then if I hadn't had the opportunity to get appointed because of the vacancy, and so that started my career, so to speak, or my time, I should say better said, my time as an elected official. And that's what just kind of propelled me, because I really, I really enjoyed it. And of course, I still enjoy it.

Before I ask you about some New York state politics stuff, let me focus on the city for a minute. You have gotten a budget approved here in the waning days of your tenure as mayor. What's in store for residents for the next fiscal year?

Well, we're staying the course fiscally. We're under the tax cap, again, we were able to drop tax rates. So, we’re doing the things we've been doing, especially being under the cap providing essential services, enhancing services as well. We've been very, very fortunate to have ARPA funding from the federal government, which has really helped us make commitments in infrastructure, and I use the parks as a great example, to make these key infrastructure improvements that's going to continue with ARPA money and other city monies, and to make sure that the city continues to improve and improve fiscally. And so, you know, I think that that, for me, for the council, there were some amendments made by the council to the budget that didn't increase spending it just move some money around from different lines, which we obviously fine with, that this budget will serve our community well. It continues a path forward, and as we see these additional improvements within the city and the continued development, and big infrastructure improvements outside of the budget, that's more capital, that we're continuing, of course, to head in the right direction and I really appreciate the council approving the budget unanimously doing

So what kind of advice, what kind of guidance are you giving to Marc Nelson, who has been a veteran of your administration and now will become the acting mayor?

Yeah, and I have to tell you, Marc is a dear friend and he is absolutely qualified to take that position. He has been involved in, which is really good for him and been good for the city, you know, he came in as finance commissioner. We recruited nationally for a finance commissioner and a city administrator in 2016. Mark came in as a Finance Commissioner because of his finance background in the city of Hartford and then when the city administrator that we brought in from Ohio, she left to go to the village of Ossining, it was an easy ask of Marc to be the city administrator, because he is such a hands-on person. And so now, he has the responsibility and the honor to be the mayor. I mean, it's not an acting mayor. He is the mayor. He's getting sworn in as mayor on January 3rd. And I've asked people, and I don't think everybody probably doesn't know this and I talked to the council about this the other night. He doesn't get to get a city administrator. I've been lucky, because I had Mark Nelson and he's going to be the mayor and he's going to be doing essentially both roles. Right now, we have two full time people, a full-time mayor and a full-time city administrator to help work with this city government and this city. And so, he has an increased task given to him by just the nature of the way that the charter is. But I have absolute confidence because everybody else is here. There is a team of people in the administration and the 350+ city employees who go to work every day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, who are out there doing great work for this city and they now know that I'm going to be leaving, I will not be Mayor as of January 3rd when Marc gets sworn in, and then I get sworn into the state Senate on January 4th, that they've got someone, they've got continuity and they know Marc. That's the other thing, it's not like our employees and members of the community don't know who he is and what he's done. He has been as much a part of this city turning around as I have been.

Obviously the tortured redistricting process of the past year is behind us but for people who may now be represented by you for the first time, remind listeners where the 39th district is, what communities it covers and how you're getting to know it.

Well, you know, it's a three-county district. In Dutchess County, it's the city of Poughkeepsie, it's the town of Poughkeepsie, it's the town of Lagrange, it's the town of Wappinger, which has the Village of Wappingers in it. It's the town of Fishkill, which has the village of Fishkill in it. It is the town of East Fishkill. It is the town of Beekman. It is a town of Pauling, which has the village of Pauling. It has the city of Beacon and then you go into Putnam County, the town of Putnam Valley. And then you have the town of Philipstown, which is the village of Nelsonville and the village of Cold Spring. And then you jump across the river and you have the City of Newburgh, the town of Newburgh, the town of Montgomery, which has the village of Maybrook, the village of Montgomery, and the village of Walden.

Sounds like a lot.

You know, it is. But you know, the good thing is that all the parts of the district are really accessible. You've got major thoroughfares, you've got country roads, you've got state highways and I have enjoyed being out of the four-square miles of the city of Poughkeepsie because when I was the mayor, I didn't have to worry about that. My focus always was, and it still will be, of course, as part of the district, the city of Poughkeepsie. I didn't have to worry about going all over the place. When I was the in the legislature and the chairman of legislature, I did a lot of traveling throughout the county, especially after I became the chair of the of the legislature. But you know, campaigning for a little over five months, I was everywhere. And I enjoyed every minute of it because I went to places that had been before I went to places I have never been. And I can tell you the reception of people, people that I knew, people that I didn't know, people of every political persuasion, was just a very, very enlightening humbling experience to be able to say, I want you to represent you. In the state capitol. I think for me, the good thing for me is having the experience that I've had, starting with public safety, becoming a county legislator being the chair of the legislature, but being the mayor of this city, that diverse city that it is with everything that can happen in a big city, but a small city challenge, right? And so, that will work very well for me in Albany, because I have experienced so much, because of the nature of what I've been able to do before becoming a state senator.

How do you feel about making $142,000 a year as a New York state Senator?

Well, I mean, this is something that I really kind of came out of nowhere, that's for this session to decide. But if I was voting on that, I would not be in support of that. When I ran for office, I have to tell you, I wasn't even sure what the salary was because there were numbers that were being talked about and I wasn't focused on that, but I would not be supporting that.

Do you object to the idea of a pay raise? Do you object to limits on outside income, specifically? How come?

Well, one of the things, which I think, and I haven't seen this in any of the discussions but this is broader than just the number. If you're saying to people, that you can’t have outside income, there is a limit on outside income, how does that impact who actually will run for that office? You know, there is this term, a citizen legislature, a body of citizens that are elected representatives. If you start to limit the ability for individuals, because this, even though it's a full-time responsibility and that's how I'm going to treat this office. Not everybody that is there now or people who may consider running in the future want to just have that as their sole income. It's like, I'm going to work for the state. Well, what about if you're a business person? What about if you have, you know, a career? I think that limits the people that would even consider running for public office and I think that's a major consideration when you talk about raising the salary and then saying, you can't you can't do this, you can't, you know, make this certain amount of money. It can obviously limit the pool of potential candidates and that's not what you want. You don't want it to be one particular type of individual or individuals. You know, these are citizens that come from throughout the state. New York is a huge state. So, while there may be people that said, yeah, I could do that, that could be my sole job, I don't really want to do anything on the outside. What about the people that that aren't able to say that and want to have a business? This gets very complicated on that end of it.

But given all of the cases of high-profile corruption tied to lawmakers’ outside activities, I mean, do you give any credence to the argument that outside income can be corruptive for people who should be putting the state's interest number one?

Well, I think if you probably look at it in totality, that's not the case. And, of course, I understand that and they should be they are high profile because of the office. But at the same time, we can't lump everybody together. I think there's 213 Total legislators between the Assembly and the Senate. I think that if that was the sole reason that's unfair. People who do bad things, can do bad things, whether we look specifically here, at an elected body, whether they're full-time legislators, or they're legislators that have the ability to have outside income. They need to know if they get to do that and get jammed up, they need to be held accountable. But I don't think you can paint with a broad brush. I don't think that's fair.

So, what would you say will be your top priority? You'll be going into minority conference in Albany. What do you plan to focus on as a state Senator?

Well, I think for me, being who I am, having integrity. People know that, I think, they can trust me. I always come from things, from a place that I think is a good place. That doesn't mean that I always have the right answer or the best idea but I always approach things on how we can make things better. This is what I've done in my career, starting out at 18 as a firefighter, and then a cop and then a legislator and a mayor. Public Safety, of course, is my background, it's an area that I really want to focus on in the state capitol and I'm looking forward to that opportunity because if communities are a state and people don't feel safe and we see that is still a top priority of people who have been spoken to about their feelings in the economy, of course. I don't want to get too far out of a lane that I know about, and I say that because I want to make a difference where I can be extremely helpful but I also want to learn. I want to learn about the other things that make a state a great state to live in. What are the impediments? What are the good things? How do we expand on both? And also, you know, what we've done here to help children. And I think I think there'll be plenty of opportunities to do that, whether you're in the minority, or the majority, but also just being very respectful of the office.

What kind of relationship do you have with the Senate Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and with the governor, Governor Hochul?

Well, I have met the Majority Leader I think one time when I attended a State of the State by then Governor Cuomo and I look forward to meeting her and now my capacity and she is the leader of the Senate. I have a respect for that. My dad was the Assistant Majority Leader of the State Senate, when he retired in 1990. And I know the responsibility, the awesome responsibility that she has, as the Majority Leader. I've met the governor several times here when she was in the city of Poughkeepsie, and Dutchess County, and someone who came from local government, like she did, and has an understanding of that. I look forward to working with her and her staff on being able to help the 39th District, which obviously is my first priority, but the overall wellbeing of the state.

So, you mentioned earlier, of course, you're keeping Poughkeepsie in your district, you'll still represent people who live there, but as mayor, is there anything that you weren't able to get done over the two terms that you're leaving as sort of unfinished business here as you look back?

Well, I think, that's a great question. It's also a tough question because I have been trying to memorialize with other staff members on the things that we've done, right? And it's a lot, I mean, I've got like, six or seven pages of notes of different things that we've been able to accomplish together and I think to keep that forward momentum. I wish that we were able to reduce that final $2.8 million out of that $13.2 million dollar deficit I inherited in 2016. I'm confident that Mayor Nelson and the Finance Commissioner and other stakeholders will be able to do that. That was our goal, to have that done to get that down to zero and maybe even establish a fund balance when I left next year, but I'm leaving early. So, I really can't, I guess I can't really, I couldn't expect to do that. That was part of the incremental way of getting that deficit down. But I just think that continuing to invest in the future and obviously, that's our children. I'm very excited for the new Youth Opportunity Union Building at the former YMCA site. We said early on in ’15 when I was running for office, I said that was going to be something that I wanted to see happen and I'm glad with the partnership with the county, that that will happen. So, I'm looking forward, but at the same time trying to reflect and I think the good thing is, is that I still will be able to be helpful to this community and to every community within the district by being a state senator that will be someone that always cares about people and communities, and will be a resource whenever needed.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.